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HELP ON NCLB: Senators Harkin and Alexander Affirm Need to Go Back to Work on NCLB Rewrite During HELP Committee Hearing on Early Lessons from NCLB Waivers

In his opening statement, Harkin said that in October 2011 the HELP Committee passed a bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA with “robust participation” from Alexander and other committee members.

During a February 7 hearing on “Early Lessons from State Flexibility Waivers” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), both Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), said Congress should go back to work on a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB.

In his opening statement, Harkin said that in October 2011 the HELP Committee passed a bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA with “robust participation” from Alexander and other committee members. Harkin noted that the bill did not move beyond the committee, but he said in the new Congress, “we are redoubling our efforts to reauthorize ESEA.”

Alexander agreed, saying that Congress should “go back to work this year” on a reauthorization of ESEA and “let the Secretary step back from waivers and let the states make their own decisions about whether students and teachers are succeeding or failing.”

In his testimony, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the Obama administration’s decision to waive certain requirements of NCLB in exchange for states’ commitments to implement college- and career-ready standards, develop strong systems of accountability and improvement, and strengthen teacher effectiveness and support. He characterized waivers as a “federal-state partnership” that permits states receiving waivers to design a plan meeting the unique needs of their districts, schools, principals, teachers, and students, rather than a “federally mandated, top-down system.”

Duncan acknowledged that NCLB’s goals—“holding all students to the same, challenging standards; closing achievement gaps; and providing transparency and accountability for the proficiency and graduation rates of all students”—are the right ones. However, he also said the law had gradually changed from an “instrument of reform into a barrier to reform” as more and more schools were labeled as failures—even those making progress in educating disadvantaged students—and closing achievement gaps. “The kids who have lost the most from that change are those who benefitted the most in the early years of NCLB—students with disabilities, low-income and minority students, and English learners.”

Duncan said states, such as Colorado and New York, were using waivers to implement more effective accountability systems that use multiple measures of school and student performance rather than a “single test on a single day.” He praised Massachusetts and Kentucky for creating state-level offices and regional centers to oversee and support low-performing schools and districts. He also said waivers support improved teaching and learning through more rigorous standards and better support and evaluation systems for principals and teachers.

In his opening statement, Alexander called the waiver process a Washington, DC version of “Mother, May I?” He noted that the waiver authority contained in NCLB is a “pretty simple authority,” but he also said Duncan’s use of the waiver authority has “gone much broader” than a “yes” or “no” to a conditional waiver permitting the secretary to make decisions that Alexander said should be made by state and local authorities. “The correct thing … to do is for the secretary to show restraint on a one-size-fits-all set of waivers and step back and just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a much simpler way, giving more allowance.”

Video of the hearing and transcripts of witness testimony are available at

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